U.S. Navy and Declaration of Independence

Reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Did the colonial navy provide the decisive power for America’s independence? Did the Navy bring the idea of freedom to the world in 1776? Was George Washington the first Chief of Naval Operations?

Author Sam Willis brings an objective international perspective to these questions in “The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016).

The book opens with revelations about how American rebels burned British ships and launched whaleboat attacks against the mighty Royal Navy, including against the schooner, HMS Diana, in Boston Harbor in 1775.

It was “a hostile act in the lion’s den itself that displayed both American courage and resourcefulness and convinced many of the direction that the revolution was taking,” Willis writes. The act planted the idea to create an American navy. And the idea came from Gen. George Washington, according to Willis. Washington knew how important waterways were to commerce and logistics.

“Washington may have lacked experience in sea power, but it is too easy to overlook his knowledge of waterways and skill in boatmanship. He may well have been a ‘farmer’ — a traditional seaman’s insult — but he was a farmer in Virginia, and in the 1770s all farmers in Virginia had a keen nose for matters maritime. Virginia was a colony that constantly looked to the sea. The most significant aspect of the Virginian economy was the exportation of tobacco, and vast fleets, well over 100 ships strong, made an annual migration to Virginia to move the tobacco crop from its magnificent natural harbour at Hampton Roads back to Europe.”

We’re reminded of Washington’s crossings of the Delaware (three crossings and returns) and of his profound faith in the Navy. He told Count Rocham-beau: “In any operation, and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle, and the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend.”

The Navy contributed directly to the spread of liberty and broadcasting of the Declaration of Independence worldwide. In the week after July 4, 1776 American ships carried printed copies of the Declaration to the rebels’ potential allies including to France and to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. From there, news of the document and copies of its text quickly traveled to Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia.

The rise and fall of empires is a theme in “The Struggle for Sea Power.” So is the nature of naval warfare, which included littoral combat. Rivers and lakes presented deadly challenges to mariners. Contemporaries did not see distinction between the importance of command of the seas and control of inland navies, considering both “command of the water.”

“If you are struggling to see a lake in the same terms as an ocean, I urge you to stand on the shores of Lake Michigan in a storm. You will not want to go out in a boat. Shallow it may be, but that shallowness and the relatively short fetch of the shores make for particularly brutal conditions on the water. And what about rivers? Rivers were to an eighteenth-century army as railways were to armies of the nineteenth century, but these were no passive, gently bubbling streams but evil and treacherous tongues of brown water whose currents could create whirlpools big enough to suck down a fully manned cutter. Figures do not survive, but it is safe to assume that during this war hundreds, perhaps thousands of sailors drowned in rivers or otherwise died fighting on, in or near them. Most of the riverine warfare I describe in this book, moreover, happened on the lower reaches, where powerful ocean-bound currents met relentless land-bound tides. Operating vessels in such conditions was the ultimate test of seamanship.”

“Struggle” offers more than a dozen pages of cool contour maps and charts, beautiful photos, and strange political cartoons of the time. Willis provides extensive notes, bibliography and even a glossary of nautical terms. The author credits the Naval History and Heritage Command’s ‘Naval Documents of the American Revolution’ series with forewords from “several generations of American presidents: from Kennedy through Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush to Obama”: https://go.usa.gov/xNAR9.

Declaration of Independence: https://go.usa.gov/xNARy

(An expanded version of this review was published on Navy Reads, a blog devoted to supporting reading, critical thinking and the Navy Professional Reading Program: http://navyreads.blogspot.com/)

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